by stefan gagne -- some characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi
The city of Darata is known for three things.
One, it is a superior port of call to any of its closest neighbors. Tons of cargo get moved in and out a day, especially since the advent of flying boats, but even before then it was notably a trade city. As a result, the financiers of the docks are stinking rich, and the dockmen typically work themselves to death, but they're poor and don't matter.
Two, coffee franchises. They're the second most lucrative business, as good shipping requires 24 hour coverage, and coffee is beneficial in the regard of staying awake. Starshot Coffees, Bagwell House Blends, and even Joe's Filthy Cuppa Joe's are cottage crops in Darata. So, all the poor people can go to spend their meager funs and drink a lot of coffee, which makes them highly wired and irritable.
Three, as a result of all the poor people and cheap coffee, it's the only city in the world where there are no bar room brawls. Instead, there are coffee bar brawls, which are similar but usually play at higher speed and have a higher mortality rate.
Zoamel tried to pick the safest looking place to get his charges back up to alertness. It had seemed like such a good idea; a little java to help them face the day, but unfortunately, he hadn't been to this city in the last fifty years, and wasn't familiar with its problems.
That, combined with news that their contact was currently in the middle of a gang war, did not bode for an easy task. But Zoamel was not worried. After all, he was on a mission from himself...
Not that his companions cared. They were too busy recovering from a hard night of drinking/chatting, a refreshing dive into the icy blue waters of the ocean and a cheerful one mile swim to shore. Such things tended to put a damper on the mood.
Lina and Penny, under a convenient bulletproof magical ward that had been put next to the ashtray on their table, grumbled and muttered and sipped ground rounds while Zoamel fished some of his change out to pay the bill. It can't help to be thrifty, the god thought, who had little concept of money except that people often wanted to kill each other to get it and he'd help out from time to time.
The swarthy coffee pusher scooped up the money and immediately placed it in a safe with six inch thick steel.
"A dangerous day, it seems?" Zoamel offered as a simplistic explanation.
"It's just the North Side Crew acting up again," the bartender said. "They're pissed off about something or another. Territory, probably. Maybe protection rackets from the South Side Bloods. Although the East Side People Who Just Get These Headaches--"
The bartender looked left, looked right. "I wouldn't say this if any of 'em were in here, but the name sounds stupid to me too. They're a new gang, mostly fueding with smaller crews like the Central Street Posse and--"
"Yes, that's nice," Zoamel said, figuring that if he actually took the time to understand the local politics, it would take several days. "Listen... I need some assistance locating someone."
"Information ain't cheap. And I don't think your pocket change is gonna cover a standard 'I'm looking for someone', especially if you're gonna go kill them or--"
Zoamel deposited a solid brick of gold on the counter.
"Normally, you understand, I prefer to carry smaller units of money," Zoamel explained. "They're more useful in normal social situations. And I suppose this really is an overcharge for a simple question, but beggars can't be choosers. Now, tell me..."
Over at the table, Lina was on her fourth cup, and pouring another.
"Che. I hate getting drunk," she complained wetly. "I've only gotten wasted a few times, and I never liked it, not once, nope."
Penny peered over the rim of her second cup. (Although with THESE mugs, it was more like 2.5.) "Then why'd you do it?"
"Felt like the adult thing to do. Notice I didn't say 'mature'," Lina added, sighing in disgust over the situation. She swallowed her pride, which was larger than most dinners she'd consumed, and continued. "Penny... you're right. I AM old. Can't say I approve of you batting your eyelashes at Zoamel when we've got serious problems to deal with... but I'm not your mother. Got that? So, well, do what you want. Fair's fair. Try not to get us killed in the process, of course."
"Really?" Penny asked. "I mean.. I know you're not my mom, that's my fault, I shouldn't have said that. Well.. okay! And if you ever want to flirt with someone while we're questing I won't complain either!!"
Lina spat most of her mouthful in a direction other than Penny's generalized direction, fortunately. "H-HEY! I didn't mean it that way! I'll have you know I'd--"
Zoamel tapped the table ward twice, deactivating it. "Time to go. From the sounds of it, we may need to hurry. He's holed up on the west side."
"..who?" Lina asked, suspiciously. "Every time I ask, you keep dodging the--"
"I'll arrange a safe transport," Zoamel said, walking away.
Lina glared at his back. "Sheesh. If I wanted a 'that is a secret' I'd be parading around with HIM instead of him... and when did HE start leading this quest, anyway?!"
"Maybe because you were too hung over to Raywing us across the harbor?" Penny pointed out, and ducked an evil glare quickly thereafter. "I think Zoamel has a commanding presence, even if he doesn't talk much about it. Besides, mysterious men have a certain charm!"
"Now, don't YOU start--"
"Hey, you promised!"
"Doesn't mean I have to APPROVE of it!" Lina barked. "Just grab your dull blade and let's get out of here. And grab me another mocha twist to go!"
"...it's not that dull..." Penny grumbled, retrieving her weapon from where it had made a dent in the wall.
"No, you IDIOT! You don't do it that way. Give me that thing."
Roy Balderdash snatched the weapon away from the idiot, and twisted the bolt around. "The clip goes in the OTHER way, you brat. You pull back the bolt, twist left, jam the clip into the handle, twist the bolt back and uncap the powder chamber. And if I catch you cleaning that thing out by wadding up your gum and using it to attract dirt, you and I are going a couple rounds. And DON'T CALL ME BOSS!"
"Y-yes, boss!" the punk barked, scrambling off, his customized Sairaag issue pistol waving in the air like a pointed stick.
"And for god's sakes, DON'T put the gum back in your mouth after! Your breath smells like an outhouse!!" Roy shouted after him, but it was too late. He slumped against a wall.
Roy pondered his fate. He hadn't asked for much in life. A few good scores, some plunder, the companionship of a few hearty lads. It was all a bandit really needed. He was HAPPY being a bandit, and was a success at it, too. Instead, now he was a failure at being a military commander. No, no, his mistake; a SUB-commander. The illustrious full title went to his usually silent companion.
"Well? You got any two cents to add to this?" he asked, turning sharply to the young boy, who was busy polishing his gunblade.
"They are not professional soldiers," Zelgadis coolly replied. "Despite being on our payroll. They're not used to taking orders aside from their usual leaders, and even then, they act wildly. Don't expect much in the way of precision from them."
"You think I don't know how bandits act?" Roy asked, insulted. "Of course they're gonna act wildly. But these.. these are wet behind the ears kids. Have they ever gotten into a battle? A REAL battle, where you swing heavy metal and lop bits off the enemy? No. They sneak around at night and pop little lead balls at each other so they don't HAVE to see each other die. And they'll never understand--"
"Spare me your bandit philosophy," Zelgadis said, slinging the gunblade onto his back. "What is the status report from the field?"
Roy bit back an insult, and walked over, to make fresh pencil lines on the map. "He's fallen back to this underground warehouse," Roy explained. "Turns out he had an escape tunnel from the LAST 'flawless trap' you designed that your spies hadn't mentioned. We've got him pinned down with three gangs. He won't be coming out, not when we've got snipers around that can pick off his little friends and a welcoming committee / lynch mob at the door. So when do we rush the joint and bag this guy?"
"Our current situation will do for now," Zelgadis said. "The goal here is not to attack his person -- it wouldn't work if we tried. Not yet. First, we must annihilate him, wear his men down, expose the weakness. Then I'll lead the strike. For now--"
A man on fire entered the command room of Joe's Filthy Cuppa Joe's. Zelgadis did little more to raise an eyebrow, while Roy scrambled to toss a pitcher of coffee over the man.
"Gyaaah!" the teenaged delinquent screamed. "That's BOILING, man!"
"What would you rather be, wet and hot or crispy dry and hot?" Roy barked back, tossing the empty pitcher away. "Now what the hell is going on?!"
"I-it's a slaughter, sir! Well.. somewhat of slaughter," he said. "North Side and East Side ran for it! Three people just jumped out of a taxi cab and started HURLING magic around like it hadn't gone out of style! It wasn't their alchemist, either, these were lunatics from hell!! They had fire in their eyes and raged like demons and--"
"Yes yes, we get the point," Roy said, figuring the rest was just shock. "Well, Zelgadis? Another unforeseen element in your perfect plans?"
The Sairaag commander stood, tossing a cloak over his shoulders, and adjusting the facemask. Not concerned. Not emotional.
"It's only three," he said. "Wherever Drake got his allies doesn't matter. I will handle them personally."
"Yes, well, have fun, then. Bring back a souvenir."
"And you will accompany me."
"OI! YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! I DARE you to call me some 'flat chested little girl' again! HEY! COME BACK HERE! I'm not DONE with--"
"They seem to be retreating," Zoamel stated, flicking a ball of black lightning he had wordlessly summoned away just as silently as he had produced it. "There is no need for further hostilities. A highly demoralized and frightened enemy is an enemy less likely to be a problem in the future, and more likely to fear you during every waking and non waking moment of their lives."
"...that's pretty sinister, Zoey."
"Yes, well, you have to know these sorts of things when you're a god of vengeance, you know," Zoamel said, with a small hint of pride.
Penny kicked a nearby rock. It rebounded into an alley, bounced off the walls three times and took out a pair of trash cans. "Lina, that's no fair! You blew them all up before I could unleash my mad skills on them with my awesome handcrafted weapon of--"
"You're lucky they were too spooked to shoot back, Penny," Lina replied, eyeing the streets, to make sure nobody was coming back. "I may be good, but I can't pluck dozens bullets from all directions out of the air with Flare Arrows, and you ran out of my shield range! Stick closer next time. Now, can we go inside? Zoamel, you said this guy would be -- what the HELL is that thing?!"
Penny looked up. And her eyes brightened. "Oh, it's an Ornithopter! Wow, I've never seen one up close!"
There are actually stranger forms of transportation than the Aquatic Mongoose. Recent developments in aviation proved that the 'propeller' theory of flight was not sufficient, and thus, the Ornithopter; a small cab with many tiny wings that beat at the air with incredible speed, hovering like a hummingbird, able to maneuver with calculated precision. All facts completely lost to Lina, who summarized with:
"Funny lookin' thing," she said, squinting a bit to see it in the shadow of the tall buildings around them.
"Those are Sairaag markings," Zoamel warned. "No doubt investigating this incident. I would advise we get indoors quickly--"
"Hold up, I wanna find out what's going on," Lina said. "Besides, if they're like any other force aligned with a mad dictator with an evil plan and a legion of faceless minions, they'll explain their intentions before actually attacking--"
Bullets carved the pavement in front of Lina in a nice, cheerful horseshoe shape. This is what happens when you put an expert gunner on a vehicle as stable as a flying chicken.
"KYAA!!" Lina shrieked, dancing from foot to foot. Normal people, normal people would have run in terror. Lina was not normal people. She clenched one fist, orange flames gathering, mixed with red of anger.... "How DARE they disobey dramatic convention? EAT THIS!"
(Technically, 'eat this' was not an actual spell, but Lina was not normal people in another regard as well...)
The ball smacked the Ornithopter upside the cabin, proving savants and scienticians right in that the thing was horribly unstable when you actually ATTACKED it, and it came spiraling down like the descent of man before impacting hard against a newspaper stand.
"Yahoo! I win!" Lina cheered. "Those things aren't so tough--"
"Get DOWN!" Penny shouted. And Lina did, and not in the dancing sense, which is good, because the gunner was out of the wreckage and opening fire.
Lina ducked, rolled, crabwalked, generally got mobile. Dodging bullets wasn't easy, but with all the smoke from the wreck and the confusion, she managed. Managed to slide her way on closer to the gunman, the guy with the funny sword that was shooting at them, and tackle him head first...
She charged a bolt of purple lightning on pure instinct, holding it back one foot, like a threat of screaming electric doom. "Okay, buster, you've got negative three seconds to explain..."
The lightning went away, presumably to terrorize some island town as part of a larger storm, as Lina's surprise shucked any control she had over it.
"Z-ZELGADIS?!" she gasped. Then felt a cold, iron barrel placed against her head.
"Lina Inverse, I presume," Roy Balderdash said, with a tone similar to one speaking the name of a Mazoku lord. "No big windup this time. I'm gonna blast your-- oh, for crying out loud, would you PLEASE get that cheap blade off my neck? It's scratchy and blunt and irritating my skin!"
"It is NOT blunt, bandit!" Penny declared, holding the end of the staff up to Roy's critical point. "I don't know what YOU'RE doing here, but put your gun down or I'll.. I'll... bonk you on the head until you stop living!"
Zoamel stood off to the side. "I would participate in the standoff with the enemy, but I traditionally go unarmed," he said. "I will cheer you on quietly from the sidelines, of course."
Everybody held real, real still. It was one of those moments where if someone coughed, multiple people would die. Where the slightest movement could trigger off a chain reaction of manslaughter and tragedy...
"I'm not going to lie here all day," Zelgadis said quietly. "Could you all please decide who lives and who dies?"
Lina groaned. "Okay, this is silly. Roy, put that thing down. Penny, ease off, okay? Let's all get to our feet and figure what's going on here."
"But--" Penny and Roy said in a nice little chorus.
"Stand down!" Lina and Zelgadis shouted in a second note of harmony.
Everybody got up, to their feet. And THEN the chaos broke out.
"What are you DOING here, Zelgadis?!"
"I could ask the same thing, especially since you seem to have found a fountain of youth--"
"Boss, that's LINA INVERSE, shouldn't we be--"
"But LINA, they're the BAD GUYS, and--"
"--excuse me, but as the senior expert on conflict here, I really think my opinion should be considered and--"
"LET ME PUT IT THIS WAY!" Lina shouted, since it's a commonly accepted fact of an argument that whoever is loudest wins. "Me and Zel need to have a few words, and nobody kills anybody until we get back. I don't like surprises and rather than start tossing magic around, I'd like to clarify a few things. OKAY?"
"Commander Zelgadis is the one who destroyed Melody, Lina," Zoamel said quietly. As if it was a minor point that made all the difference. Which it did.
"...I'm going to have a few words," Lina repeated. Reaffirming herself. "That is the final say in the matter. Move it, you guys, and get the information. I'll catch up."
"Very well," Zelgadis said. "I will hear you out. Roy, return to base. I will be along shortly."
Zoamel turned, to leave. "Penny, this way. I have no desire to stand around and wait for this warlord. Lina, we will be inside that warehouse."
The parties reluctantly parted, leaving only Lina and Zelgadis, in a stare-down that rivaled the weapons standoff from before. Lina finally broke the silence.
"Buy you a cup of coffee?"
From a quiet, bullet-pockmarked rooftop, a lone figure stood, watching the scene from shadows. He leaned heavily on his walking staff.
Of course, he had no SPECIFIC reason to be here. Here, in Darata. He told his companion that all was in hand, and it was, even if he wasn't sure what the hand would be holding in the immediate future. No need to cause needless worry, mind you.
"Knowing her," Xelloss mused to himself, "She's going to need a helping hand soon. She's getting in rather deep, don't you think? Which is what we want, of course. It wouldn't do otherwise."
"Oh, hush. There is a purpose in hiding. Making like good little shadowy lurking figures and cackling from afar while doing nothing.. for now. And no, I'm not going to dive in there and explain everything. Yes, that is the most direct route, but it's a sure fire way to fail in the long run, as I've said MANY times previous--"
The bird hopped up and down angrily, flapping wings. The feathery rage merely amused the Mazoku.
"Now now, what did I say to you when we left? I said leave this to me. Let me handle this MY way. It's only thanks to me that you're still ALIVE, you remember..."
The raven rustled its feathers, not appreciating the sentiment. But Xelloss simply smiled. He knew it was true.
"You should be happy they left you with a single feather," he mocked. "I'm not sure I would have, if I was in charge of that Sairaag army. We.. or should I say, YOU got sloppy, and this is the price. But our revenge will come when the time is right, and until then, we pick our actions cautiously. Now quit bothering me, please, it's rather strange to be seen talking to a bird."
The coffee was poured. Twin cups, set at the right hand of each old friend, the waitress totally unaware of what was going on. Why there was tension over the table. Of course, she was used to gangs coming in to drink and her kevlar apron reduced her overall tension, so she dismissed it and left.
Lina didn't go for her drink. She wasn't actually thirsty. But you have to have drinks for an encounter like this. The question was, how to open it? Hi? How are you? How's the weather? So, what have you been doing for the last twenty years? The last time she met someone from her past, it hadn't gone well at all--
"Why did you fight the gangs that were laying siege to the building?" Zelgadis asked, skipping the opening move and sliding right into check. He didn't slip into normal Zelgadis Angry And Throttling You Because He Doesn't Like Surprises, simply got right to the chase...
Lina tried to ignore that, and answer honestly with a shrug of the shoulders. "It beats me. Zoamel says we need to meet someone in there. I'm on a quest, you see. Nothing bad, just a little self improvement. Why do you ask?"
"I see," Zelgadis stated. Then, he went for the coffee. It made a good pause, while he sipped, then set the warm cup down. Then stood up. "That makes us enemies. I will take leave now."
"Wh-hey, hey! Whoa, sit your rocky ass down a minute," Lina said, putting a hand on his arm. "That's it? Hello, how are you, we're enemies? Mind explaining WHY we're enemies first? I like to know these things."
"It's simple enough," Zelgadis said, sitting down again, a bit tentatively. "First of all, the man in there you seek is likely the one I was sent to destroy. You've already defeated the army of local gangs I had organized. Therefore, you've struck the first blow, and I have no choice but to defend my interests."
"Gangs..? You ORGANIZED those guys? Why would you go and do a stupid thing like--"
"Orders," Zelgadis said. "From Sairaag. I am their military commander now. This is my mission."
"Oh? Got bored doing odd jobs and adventures, huh," Lina said. "Well, a government job is a stable job, so I guess it makes sense--"
"It's not like that."
"Then spill it. What's it like? And aren't you the LEAST bit concerned about why I'm so youthful and full of spunk? You haven't ASKED!"
"That's secondary," Zelgadis said. "My mission is first. I MUST carry this out. It's vital... to my experiment. To curing myself. To becoming a full human again."
"Oh, you found a solution? Some new spell or ritual? That's great! I--"
"No magic," Zelgadis said. "Never again. You want to know why? I suppose you'll just pester me with questions until I explain, and I don't care to be pestered. So, know this: I don't need magic anymore and I don't want it. Magic killed my sister, Lina. Slain by men of magic and religion, who feared science and what it could do, just because they were stupid and prejudiced. The old way is like that, steeped in 'tradition' and history, and unwilling to accept anything unusual... like a chimera in their midst. But science is acceptance of theory. Nobody fears me in Sairaag. Elizabeth doesn't fear me..."
"What, so you get some new friends and you turn your back on your whole way of life? Zel--"
"Science can CURE me," Zelgaids reinforced. "That is what matters. What has magic done for me? Magic destroyed her, cast me out as a freak, ruined everything... even Rezo, as much as I hated him, was destroyed by trying to use magic to find his cure. I've made my decision; if I have to pick between that flawed philosophy and the new world order, I will side with the future. With Sairaag."
Lina paused. THAT she wasn't sure how to react to. "...I didn't know you had a sister," she lamely responded.
"Now you know," Zelgadis said. His eyes curled into her, hard as stone, a glare that was dead to the world -- a heavy death, that announced itself. "You also know that I will not stop to find this cure. I've waited long enough, Lina. Too many failures, too much disappointment, too many sacrifices -- but now I have the path, and I WILL walk it at all costs. That is more than you need to know as to why I'm willing to fight my way through you to get to what I need. As for your second question..."
Zelgadis brushed a hand over his sleeve, revealing a metal bracelet. A small purplish gray light winked in silence, mounted as a cheap cross-shaped jewel on either side of the ring.
"This tells me that you do not exist," he said, voice dropping from stone to ice. "That you are not Lina Inverse. I noticed the moment you laid your hands on me. The true human Lina is married and far, far from here. Her, I would never harm, but I am not your friend, and you are my enemy. All of your kind are. And I will exterminate you. I just thought you'd prefer to know why, if you have any trace of her in you, to know why I'm doing this. To know what I've become."
Lina didn't fear for her life. Not yet. He wouldn't attack her, not right here. Everything had changed, but THAT couldn't have... could it?
"Of course, I'm not expecting you to fully understand, ghost," Zelgadis said, brushing his sleeve back, rising a final time from his chair. "But I will give you until morning. I require time to reassemble my forces, to finish the job. Your friend cannot escape the city without dealing with the snipers, who have not run away. I will come for him, and then you. Prepare."
Lina sat in stunned silence, as the chimera calmly paid for his drink, opened the door, and left. Her coffee grew quite cold before she left. And her knees were shaking on the way to the dark warehouse entrance, but it wasn't from the chill of the weather.
Nobody shot her down from unseen corners as she walked to the building, and she entered safely, not sure where she was going or why. But the feeling she couldn't shake was driving her on.
He knew. He knew she was a Demiurge.. just a Demiurge, not the Lina he knew. He'd gone completely around on his whole way of life, on everything he believed in and now was her enemy. Just like Lina Gabriev had done. If THAT was the kind of warm greeting she could expect from people who knew her... who knew Lina... what would the others be like? What would Gourry think of her? Amelia? If she ever met them again...
Maybe she could start over, once she stopped being this memory of Lina Inverse. Become a different person, leave that behind. A life that she wasn't fitting into, that didn't want her -- it already had a Lina. Once she got the damn quest over and became a flesh and blood human again, that's what she would do. Lina didn't ASK for this, and now absolutely did not want it. Someone else could smack Bandits around and eat dinner by proxy, not her.
No wonder the Tooth Fairy got out -- it was creepy, not being your own person.
Lina twisted around quickly, ready to blast whoever it was, but wasn't so twitchy as to actually fry Penny. She calmed herself immediately, and dropped into a nonchalant smile as the younger girl jogged over. Never let 'em see you sweat, that was her way. Lina's way, at least.
"Hey, coffee was bland, so I came home. By the way, Zelgadis probably wants to kill us all."
"Wh-haa?" Penny gaped, skidding to a halt. "But.. but wasn't he one of Mom's best friends? And yours?"
"Yes, well, time moves on, and all," Lina stated, dismissing it. "Whatever; I plan to be out of here as soon as inhumanly possible. Did we get the information? Can we go yet?"
"Err... no. Drake-san is willing to trade for it, though, and Zoamel negotiated out a deal while you were busy."
"Oh? Sounds fine here! What's he want? We don't have much money, but--"
"He wants us to stay and help defend his gang."
Lina paused. Considered all the possible outcomes that COULD have come from this, realized this was probably the worst, and smacked her forehead. "Oh, joy. Jolly joy and wondrous whatever. PENNY! We've got the Sairaag army commanding a bunch of idiots with firearms out there, not to mention a gun toting psychotic chimera, and they're gonna swoop in at morning! What was Zoamel THINKING? I know he doesn't like Sairaag ... after what they did, but... he...."
She figured it out.
"Vengeance," both girls said simultaneously; one in groaning defeat and the other as a cheerful explanation.
"He DID promise his worshippers he'd exact some from his enemies, after all," Penny added. "It's only natural. Isn't it exciting? We're going to triumph over the forces of darkness! I get to help!"
Lina pushed her way by the younger (but only in a metaphysical sense) girl, stomping towards on an underground staircase. "He's down there, isn't he? Well, it's time I got a good, firm hold on this adventuring party. I AM in charge, after all, and I say we LEAVE! This won't stand!"
"No buts. C'mon."
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Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.